Winnipeggers Johanna Hurme, Colin Neufeld and Sasa Radulovic, partners in 5468796 Architecture, are among the most respected urbanists in Canada. Their creations range from idiosyncratic residential complexes (including 62M, the discus-shaped building on stilts shown above) to beloved community events (see Table for 1200, one of the world’s largest outdoor dinner parties). Their design philosophy centres on cosmopolitanism, participation and togetherness — themes that, at least on the surface, seem at odds with the conventions of social distancing. But perhaps, as they tell Simon Lewsen, this doesn’t have to be true.
Simon Lewsen: Let’s start by articulating the case for pessimism. How might COVID-19 make our cities worse?
- Johanna Hurme
I worry that people will go back to this notion that the only way to live is to have vast amounts of personal space.
- Colin Neufeld
People might say, “We should make the streets wider for cars, because we’re safer in our cars.” This mentality could erode our civic culture.
You clearly believe that density and well-used public spaces are good for cities, but hasn’t COVID-19 shown us that these things are dangerous?
Density doesn’t mean cramming as many people into a room or park as possible. It’s about decent, human-scale housing and outdoor spaces where people can have social contact but with more elbow room than before.
How do we create that elbow room when our cities are already tightly packed?
- Sasa Radulovic
We make the sidewalks wider and narrow the streets. With people working less and being at home more often, the traffic has been reduced. That’s a change we should seize.
Since COVID-19 hit, we’ve discovered that the outdoors is the one place where we can all get together relatively safely. Should we therefore be rethinking many aspects of outdoor design?
The street that Johanna and I live on is lined with patios. A few years back, businesses started extending their patios and taking over parking spots. We should keep experimenting with initiatives like this.
It’s all about flexibility. This is not going to be the last pandemic. We will need places that expand when social distancing is necessary and contract when it isn’t. In 2017, we launched Design Quarter, a non-profit organization that promotes local, design-focused businesses. Last year, we gave blankets to member restaurants. Today, if customers aren’t able to sit in them because of social distancing, there are still many pocket parks in the city. People can get takeout from a restaurant, borrow a blanket and create a shared food court outdoors.
What other urban spaces might we reclaim?
Rooftops are underutilized. When you get high up on many of the buildings in Winnipeg, you see nothing but mechanical units and gravel.
A few years back, we discussed turning the rooftop of a Winnipeg parkade into a drive-in theatre. In Toronto, the downtown Eaton Centre has a tremendous amount of rooftop parking. Wouldn’t it be amazing if they screened open-air movies there?
All these ideas — extended patios, park restaurants, rooftop cinemas — sound like wonderful summer initiatives. But what happens when the weather turns cold?
We need to create pockets of warmth. Last summer, we visited a project in Malmö, Sweden, called Bo01, about the effects of urban microclimates. There, a cold breeze comes off the North Sea, but if you step into certain courtyards, you’ll find that the temperature suddenly increases by 10 degrees.
How do you achieve that effect?
You situate buildings at 45-degree angles to the south, so that you get more sun exposure to different sides. You place your patios on the north side of the streets, so they capture the southern sun. And you set buildings in a pinwheel arrangement around a central courtyard, which is then protected from the wind.
You’ve sketched out two possible post-COVID-19 futures: one in which space is privatized and severed from the commons, and another in which we rebuild our cities in pedestrian-friendly ways. How does one make the case for the latter vision?
You emphasize the positive changes that have already happened. As urbanists, we should say, “Look, because of COVID-19, we’re already spending more time on the sidewalks. Now, let’s make them better and safer.”
It’s the responsibility of design folk to put a positive message out there. We’ve all seen how, over the past several months, dense cities have had massive reductions in pollution and traffic and improved air quality. The message we should convey is, “Let’s preserve these changes. Aren’t they better for all of us?”
A Q&A with the firm’s founders on how flexible public spaces can nurture togetherness.